Indian popular culture usually presents Punjab as the fount of eternal well-being. Bombay cinema in particular depicts Punjab as a rich homeland full of golden fields, sarson da saag and tractor-loads of farmers poised to bhangra at yet another bumper harvest.
Through the 1990s, Bombay films popularised this image of Punjab among Indian and diaspora audiences. The filmic ‘state of plenty’ boasted brave and handsome sons, fair and lovely daughters, industrious and prosperous people. The state seemed State-less, ruled only by ironies. Love flowed through its winds but required social approval, migration to foreign locales strengthened emigrants’ roots and a regional ethos of equality was riddled with hierarchies.
In its construction of a rustic idyll extending itself across the globe through diasporic movements, Bombay films ignored caste in Punjab. As the recent shoot-out in a Vienna gurudwara and its aftermath show, caste for Punjabis is real, violent and tense. It has a long history and a bitter present. It is a realm of oppression and struggle where every Singh is certainly not king. The drama of caste in Punjab makes its omission by Bombay cinema particularly remarkable.
I chanced upon caste in Punjab by accident. During my doctoral research, I lived in a Sikh village near Ludhiana, doing what anthropologists call ‘participant-observation’, immersion in the environs of people whom one is studying. I wanted to see how Sikhs negotiated ‘Punjabiyat’ in Bombay films. The filmic phenomenon was ubiquitous and dazzling, yet contradictory as the culture on-screen was presented as Hindu Punjabi and usually personified by Shahrukh Khan, a Peshawar-Delhi Muslim.
My fieldwork yielded knowledge about audience aspirations, politics and pleasure playing out through popular culture and commercial entertainment. I learned that screen silences were as important as speeches. I began sensing the ghosts of Partition, the Green Revolution and Khalistan hovering over filmic sequences. I learnt about a fabulous pre-colonial history and a troubled relationship with colonisation that blended into screen politics. I also learnt of the power of caste. The Punjab village where I lived was indeed idyllic, prosperous and attractive with old havelis and cobbled lanes on which the SUVs of rich Jats trundled, surrounded by green fields and a blue-gold sky. The sense of space was enormous, yet constricted. The first question one faced was, “What caste are you from?” which, in a Sikh village, took one rather by surprise.
The village was divided into two zones, Jat and Scheduled Caste. The first was rich, electrified, wireless. The second was poor, darker, smaller. Separate gurudwaras existed for each. There were restrictions on eating, touch and marriage between castes. The Jats regularly emphasised their ‘purity’ to the Scheduled Castes who sought dignity in sects and affirmative action by the State. Popular culture played a definite role in struggles over identity.
Jat Sikhnis of the village, ardent fans of Bombay cinema, began observing the marital Hindu fast of Karwa Chauth. While the Jat Sikhs muttered about ‘Hindu-fication’, one thing was certain: the Scheduled Caste Sikhs were not allowed to observe the same fast; their ‘pollution’ ruled that out. “Jats are the noblest Sikhs,” said an agricultural rentier. “Look at Hindi films. On the rare occasion they show a Sikh, he is a Jat.”
But how could you tell, I wondered, with a common surname and an identity based on ending distinctions by adopting the markers of Sikhism? “Of course you can tell,” a woman said. “Just look at the colour! Fairness and a good build mean Jat Sikh because they come from pure stock and haven’t mixed their marriages.” Interestingly, Akshay Kumar was the Jat zone’s favourite star, considered ‘handsome’ enough to portray a ‘proper’ Sikh on-screen, which is exactly what he did soon thereafter.
Contrary to its perception of being based entirely on fantasia, Bombay cinema actually acutely senses grassroot realities and ground-level politics. With a mix of prejudice and judiciousness, it chooses elements of maximum acceptability with the maximum number, depicting that on-screen as ‘reality’. Many aspire towards such reality, some challenge it fervently.
As I found, in its omission of caste from the Punjab landscape, Bombay cinema, in fact, touched upon the reality of nightmares jostling amid dreams, silences amidst celebrations, and aspiration and brutal denials co-existing in the ‘state of plenty’.
Srijana Mitra Das is with the Department of Social Anthropology, Cambridge University, UK